Day seven of my own little Robert Wise Film Festival
In 1966, the Vietnam war was just beginning in earnest and Robert Wise made The Sand Pebbles, an epic about another American intervention in Asia forty years earlier. After watching the film, it’s hard to judge whether the film was anti-Vietnam or just about an American gunboat in China in 1926, which is to its credit. Had Wise chosen to stack the deck politically, it would have weakened what was already a powerful story.
The Sand Pebbles opens with Chief Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) arriving in Shanghai to report for duty aboard a U.S. gunboat patrolling a tributary of the Yangtze River. While in Shanghai, he briefly meets Jameson (Larry Gates), an idealistic missionary who supports Chinese nationalism, and an idealistic young teacher (Candice Bergen) accompanying him to the China Light Mission. Holman is an engineer and engines are all he knows. He’s more comfortable dealing with them than with people.
At this time, China is in the midst of violent upheaval. European powers and brutal warlords still rule the country but Nationalists in the south and Communists in the north are fighting for control.
He finally arrives at his assignment, a relic of the Spanish-American War named the San Pablo, or “Sand Pebble” to its crew, but finds things not to his liking. Rather than being alone with his beloved engines, they are tended by a crew of Chinese “coolies” who do most of the actual work, leaving the American crew to man the guns. Holman’s resistance to this system puts his in conflict with both the leader of the coolies and the San Pablo’s by-the-book captain (Richard Crenna). When two of the coolies are killed in separate incidents, the crew starts to regard Holman as a “Jonah” or jinx.
Holman’s only friend on the crew is Frenchy (Richard Attenborough doing a respectable American accent), a soft-hearted sailor in love with a half-Chinese prostitute (Marayat Andriane) in town. Holman’s attempts to help them, however, lead to him being accused of the woman’s murder and the ship is laid siege to by an angry Chinese mob demanding that the “murderer” Holman be turned over. The ship is trapped in harbor until the following spring and the stress of the siege leads to a near mutiny by the San Pablo crew.
They finally break free of the siege as China erupts into anti-Western violence. The captain elects to disobey orders and break a river blockade of sampans to rescue the missionaries at China Light.
The Sand Pebbles great strength is that it plays fair with the China situation. There are angels and devils on both sides. Holman is clearly prejudiced against the Chinese. He refers to them as “slope heads” and his primary objection to letting the coolies run his engines is that he doesn’t think they’re smart enough to handle it. On the other hand, he clearly feels sympathy for some of them and objects to how other members of the crew treat them, especially the women at the brothel they frequent. The captain is another piece of work. He’s outwardly a “Regular Navy” man but he perpetuates the very irregular “coolie system” because it serves his purposes, freeing up the Navy crew to be used against the coolies’ fellow Chinese.
The Sand Pebbles is a long movie, nearly three hours, but it doesn’t seem like it. All the performances are quite sound, although Candice Bergen’s Shirley sometimes seems too idealized, too much the dream girl, to be believable.
It’s view of Chinese nationalism is respectably nuanced. The movie sees the evils of both European colonialism and Communism and doesn’t pretend that either is the solution for the other.